Archive for June 2013

Game On

June 29, 2013

The Obama Administration announced yesterday the Affordable Care Act permanent rules.  The good news is that no one will be forced to use any benefits associated with women’s reproductive health.  It will strictly a personal choice.  The even better news is that except for genuine religious organizations, no female employee of any other organization (or affiliate) will be denied full reproductive health coverage (including birth control measures).  Let the games begin.

Not so long ago, this game was also played.  The Catholic Church asserted that its deeply held beliefs that birth control was wrong supported its contention that it should not be required to provide full woman’s health coverage.  The Church said they did not need to provide full coverage even to the female employees of the $70 million per year Notre Dame football team.  This position is a testimony to how far astray an organization can get when it allows compassion to be drowned by narrow beliefs.

The HHS announcement’s timing may be just chance.  In any case, it was clever following just days after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and effectively allowed same sex marriages to return to California.  Many religious organizations were not happy with that outcome, and some see the world’s end following soon.

President Obama was in Senegal this week.  He and Senegal President, Macky Sall exchanged words over the treatment of homosexuals and potentially their rights to marry.  Senegal is an overwhelmingly Muslim country and surprise, surprise, god has told the Senegalese that there can be no same sex marriage.  Hmmm.

The HHS announcement, same sex marriage, and anti-homosexual laws all have something in common.  These are about restrictions where someone has said “I don’t approve of doing X myself, and I don’t approve of you doing it either”.  They hold these views despite the fact that no one is forced to use contraceptives, no one is forced to marry someone of the same sex, and no one is forcing anyone to become homosexual.

Why can’t some choose to live their own lives they way they wish (like practicing Catholics or Muslims) and let others follow a different life style (providing the other person is not harming others)?

Collateral Damage

June 28, 2013

What prompts Texan politicians to pass strict voter identification laws or restrictive abortion rules?  Are there problems in Texas (comapred to the rest of the country that need fixing?  Why does the US Senate pass a ridiculous immigration reform bill whose provisions are reminiscent of the Berlin Wall?  And, on what planet is the House of Representatives’ majority party living when they essential say the Senate immigration bill is dead?

In one way or the other, these legislative examples are all about the control of the legislative body and the moneys these bodies control.  The politicians real objective is to return as much money as possible to their supporters (and ultimately to themselves).  This is the human condition of politics.  It is that way and always has been.

So the legislative game is all about ensuring one gets reelected.

Voter ID laws (like complicated registration and photo ID at the voting booth) are designed to thwart efforts by a changing electorate to vote.  Demographic shifts are very worrisome to these in place politicians.

Abortion restrictions are a shameful pandering to a conservative base.  Keeping unfriendly voters from voting needs to be paired with ensuring friendly voters keep voting.  The merits of the legislation is never at issue.

Opposition to immigration reform is a two-fer.  Keeping the 11 million undocumented immigrants undocumented eliminates a flood of new voters who would probably vote against the entrenched party.  Undocumented workers also represent to conservatives something inherently wrong while anti-immigration reform is singing to their choir.

In these examples the good guys are progressives and the bad guys are conservatives.  These dynamics, sadly, would also apply to Democrat controlled legislatures.  It’s about the money, stupid.

The collateral damage falls on everyone else.  Governments are inherently inefficient when there is no effective checks and balances (between the executive, legislature, and judiciary, AND between political parties).  Sound and constructive debates around spending programs simply can not exist if one party has locked up a solid voting majority which is immune to real competitive challenges.  

The abortion challenge is an attack upon women, plain and simple.  No one is required to seek an abortion.  It is a very personal decision.   If a woman makes this decision, roadblocks should not be put in her way.  A political faction who are sincerely opposed to abortion would pack any abortion restricting legislation with means to prevent unwanted pregnancies like family planning information such as sex education, condom availability and wide distribution of Plan B.  They are totally silent.

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis has just had her 15 minutes of fame conducting a successful filibuster blocking the passage of restrictive abortion rules.  Her performance suggest strongly that legislatures could be improved by electing far more women and breaking, for a time, the old boys club.



Voting Rights

June 26, 2013

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act has been held by the Supreme Court as too vague with respect to why certain States are included and others not.  In most respects this is not a surprise since the Court said almost the same thing the last time this issue was contested.  What is different is that this time the Courts directive to “fix it” will fall on even deafer Congressional ears.  As a consequence, the Court has in effect struck down the Voting Rights Act without actually having to have done it.

The Voting Rights Act is needed today more than ever. Race, however, is not necessarily the reason.  The risk today is rigging the voting rules to favor one party over the other and in the process disadvantage others far beyond the State.

With political party polarization, it seems there will be no limits to what ends one party might try to disadvantage the other.  While this modern discrimination may not be racially based, it is none the less a direct effort to change voting rules and thereby advantage one party over the other.  A body as supposedly wise as the Supreme Court might have avoided this type of ruling had they not viewed this through political eyes.

Consider a State not currently covered by the Voting Rights Act, Pennsylvania.   Under a newly elected Republican majority, the legislature passed a photo ID law allegedly to prevent voter fraud.  While this justification is laughable since there have been no cases reported, the question of whether the person voting is the person registered to vote is a valid point.  To the extent that a photo ID is helpful, great.  But utility bills and signed copies of voter registration cards should also work.  Unless, of course, the real objective is to limit the vote. Hmmm.

The real rub with the current VRA is States like Pennsylvania can enact voting restrictive measures (no prior Federal review required) and unless someone sues, the law stands.  On this basis, it seems reasonable that what’s good for Pennsylvania ought to be good for Texas.  And in this light the Supreme Court (5-4) decision must be seen as both political and reasonable.


The Health Care Missing Link

June 25, 2013

How can it be that most Americans don’t want anyone to “mess” with their healthcare?  Why do so many Americans think the US has  the best healthcare in the world? And, why do Americans instinctively convulse when the benefits of universal healthcare, such as found in Germany, France, Japan and about 20 other countries, is offered as an improvement for the US?

Ignorance is a credible answer.  By ignorance, I mean most Americans do not know that US health care is generally twice as expensive as any other modern industrial country.  On the same page, Americans do not know that health outcomes, for instance life expectancy, is greater in all these countries spending less than half the US.  And most Americans do not appreciate how much the quality of US healthcare varies from place to place.  (If we overlook cost, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and a few dozen other top notch teaching institutions are the best in the world.  The problem is that they represents the peak, not the average.  Most Americans receive very average healthcare at very high prices.)

How can Americans come to recognize there are better Healthcare models?

For most open minded Americans, simply reading widely available literature should be sufficient.  Unfortunately this is not natural when you already hold the idea that American healthcare is great.

A less direct method involves logically thinking about ones individual health.  Generally when we are young, health care issues are few and relatively inexpensively treated.  We know this from experience and we know this from insurance costs.  Young, single individuals are insurers’ dream.  Next comes young marrieds with young families.  Then comes almost anyone without any “pre-existing condition”.  And most of us know that individuals with chronic health conditions and in advanced years generally cost a lot to insure.

But wait.  Isn’t it natural to progress from young and healthy to old and less healthy?

So, here’s the missing link.  The US healthcare systems sees each individual as discreet as opposed to seeing all Americans as the average.

The US spends about $9,000 per person per year.  A family of five represents $45,000 in annual healthcare cost if the average were considered.  This sum is almost equal to the average income of Americans.

For sure there is still a long way to travel for the US to achieve worldclass healthcare and health care cost.  But the first step has to be the recognition of the life span evolution of ones health care needs.  When the current average price is bluntly looked at, Americans should slowly come to the realization that we can not afford the current US system.  While Americans may worry, systems found in Germany, France, and Japan could cut the cost and deliver as good or better quality.

The missing link is the first step on getting control of health care myths and ending the notion of the free lunch.


Espionage in the 21st Century

June 24, 2013

With a click of the return key or maybe the send button, national secrets streak across the digital ether.  And with each release, government officials huff and puff about the “unprecedented” assault on national security.  Traitors, treason, and friends of the enemy are epitaphs bandied each time there is a leak.  But are government officials overlooking something?

Private Bradley Manning offers a great example.  He is alleged (and has confessed) to releasing thousands of classified State Department cables.  We were told that great harm had been done and Manning should be tried for treason.  (I know of no reports of any adverse impact from the released cables.)  Manning may have garnered a little more of government wrath because Wikileaks published many of the cables in spite of strong government demands.  In essence, the government looked impotent.

Now, Edward Snowden has raised the price of poker.  He is alleged to have downloaded an unspecified number of highly classified documents which cover possible covert 4th Amendment infringements.  Once again we have heard the words “treason”.  Snowden is currently on the run with “friends in high places”, possibly headed for political asylum in Ecuador.

The legal aspects of both cases will playout over time.  Guilt or innocence is very difficult to ascribe from the average Americans perspective.  And, a finding of guilty does not in and of itself suggest an appropriate punishment will follow.  Here’s why.

The Manley disclosures for the most part were more similar to gossip than real diplomatic communications.  The government deserved to be embarrassed that members of its foreign service would waste other government officials’ time with trivial missives.  And the height of ridiculousness was that these documents were classified and retained at all.

The Snowden case actually deals with top secret material.  The problem with them is the question, should the government be collecting and retaining the disclosed information?  Were the information being collected only apply to communications occurring outside the US, it could be argued that this would pose no threat to American’s Constitutional liberties.  While the government has argued there has been no spying on Americans, the data collected puts the government in the unusual situation of what about next month, or next year or whenever?   The government could in the future mine the collected data for some other entirely unrelated reason.  Hmmm.

Stepping back, we have two incidents which raise serious questions on government activities.  But far more to the point is what type of actual security the government is using.  It seems totally insufficient in the electronic age, especially with respect to how serious the government alleges the release of this information will be.

Saying it differently, the digital age has given government agencies unprecedented ability to generate, store, and analyze data.  When secrets existed only on paper, security involved “need to know”, locked boxes, and safes.  Regardless of how the legal aspects are resolved, both of these incidents could have been prevented with appropriate checks and balances.

And, just in case, authoritative government figures continue to demand death or life in prison, one thing is sure.  This use of excessive punishment will not deter the next person who may not have the “need to know” but instead has the “know-how to find” digital data.  This is the real problem and this is where the leaks must be stopped.


Liar’s Poker?

June 21, 2013

Listening to the Senate immigration reform debate reminds me of liar’s poker.  Each Senate speaker hides his real beliefs and instead spews a calculated and ridiculous dribble of nonsense whose purpose it to mislead the listener.  Why would grown men and women engage in such a public display of insincerity unless it was liar’s poker?

The easiest explanation is “this is what my constituents want”.  But this is a Senate debate and illegal immigrants (and let’s be clear, we are talking about Mexicans), can be found in all 50 States.  Do all Americans so much against sensible reform?

Mexicans pick much of our fruits and vegetables, cut and manicure many of our lawns, frame new construction, work in factories, and bus most restaurants.  And, in most States, when you see them, they are working, not standing around.  So I doubt most constituents are hot to deport Mexicans.

Another crowd pleaser is “I’m absolutely against those who try to cut into line”.  This charge is a thinly disguised slam against potential Democrat voters should they gain citizenship.  This statement ignores the economic advantages of working papers and citizenship.  Ironically Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are second generation Hispanics.  Why would expect second generation Mexicans to be far behind?

So the latest, breath taking news is a new compromise involving a “boarder surge”.  This wasteful measure is intended to “secure the boarder” by adding more fencing and 20,000 new agents.  What are these people smoking?  This move will cost in excess of $2 billion just to employ these 20,000.

It is laughable to hear some Republicans supporting reform because they fear a repeat of the demographic effect we witnessed in President Obama’s reelection.  Others seem oblivious and rant about denying a quick path to citizenship.  The unspoken message is more like, “in my State, I don’t need the Hispanic vote, I am concerned about winning the Hispanic vote”.

One of the truths in life is that when you are going down the wrong path, it’s hard to get to the right end point.

At the end of the day, the illegal immigrant problem is about “working papers” for Mexicans.  If the US required official working papers and prosecuted any business who employed anyone without working papers, the number of undocumented workers would vanish.  Now the reality is that the US needs a large number of guest workers.  Mexicans and Canadians could fill many of these openings.  So why not open the North American region to a “free movement of labor” zone?

What about citizenship?

As with all difficult problems, divide it into two parts.  For the Mexican already here, get working papers by registering with s national bureau.  No papers no work or pathway to citizenship.  For those still in Mexico, register first.  No papers, no work and no social benefits.  Take the money we were willing to spend upon the boarder surge and put it into enforcement of “no papers, no work”.

The last point on whether this is a Democrat leaning program since it could lead to millions of new Mexican US citizens.  Maybe, maybe not.  Anyone who thinks Mitt Romney lost the last election due to his immigration policy is mistaken.  Romney and all other Republicans need to rethink all their programs towards all groups.  With a fairer approach aimed at a better quality of life for everyone, Republicans will do just fine.

Barack Quixote

June 19, 2013

The President spoke today from the shadows of the Brandenburg Gate.  Berlin has been the site of previous Obama speeches and welcomed him warmly again.  He spoke of spirit, of how great nations respect the rights of individuals, and the triumph of freedom over tyranny.  (All great messages for places like Russia, Syria, Turkey, and the Middle East in general.)  He stood tall like a Statesman and gave a serious speech.    One wonders why?

It could be that White House aides are seeking to put the President back in leading position.  The IRS and Benghazi kerfuffles have pretty much been shown to be non-events and the political opportunists who ranted about them now appear exposed for who they are.  But why Berlin?

Barack Obama is at his best with a prepared speech and a teleprompter to lead him through it.  The Brandenburg gate, a sunny day, and flags galore, all make up an inspiring picture.  But why Berlin now?

Just a few days ago, the G-8 met in Northern Ireland.  These leaders discussed economic issues in public and the Syrian conflict in private.  From public statements, not much was accomplished, most probably because progress on any of these issues would involve more risk and sacrifices than any G-8 member wants to take.  So, once again why Berlin?

While enroute to the G-8, the House of Representatives decided to vote on previously Supreme Court established abortion limits.  The Republican majority decided that restricting the right to an abortion to the 20th week was more important than the budget or debt extension, or any legislation on job creation.  The GOP decision is more befuddling when one realizes the bill die in the Senate and that women opposed this type of thinking in the last Presidential election.  Of course, less surprising, it is the same legislative body that has voted to repeal Obamacare 37 times, each time without a proposal to deliver the same benefits.  Is this why Berlin?

As George W Bush said, history will judge where my 8 years rate.  Time has a way of moderating the emotions of the present and putting in perspective the hills and valleys of a Presidency.  Certainly no speech in Berlin is going to amount to much in any evaluation by history.

The “why” about Berlin, I think, lies in the nature of Barack Obama.  He may be a modern day Don Quixote.  President Obama has concluded that governing in Washington is like being a cafeteria monitor during a food fight.  Congress is totally self absorbed, dysfunctional, and uninterested in steps to advance the US economy or our quality of life.  The President has become frustrated and is seeking other platforms where he can speak out on “how the world should be”.  The German Reichstag and Bundestag are not going to speak against anything he says.

With two unattractive choice, deal with Congressional Republicans the way they are dealing with the President (that is getting into the gutter), or making speeches in historic settings, I think Berlin is surprisingly perfect.


Looking Around Corners

June 18, 2013

New York Times columnist David Brooks said, in evaluating President Obama’s policies toward Syria (and maybe NSA spying), that the American people want a President who can look around corners and tell America what the government should be doing.  Brooks was contrasting President Obama’s tendency to quote poll numbers when saying why he was pursuing a certain course of action.  Hmmm.

I agree most people prefer a leader who is brave, bold, and right in his/her judgement.  From my earliest days with the cowboy hero who wore a white hat, I plus all America have been conditioned to respect leaders who do the right thing no matter what the mob thinks.  (I am not as sure about the impact of the modern “super heros”, however.)

“Looking around the corner” presupposes the “looker” sees things correctly.  I wonder whether Brooks thinks “W” and Dick Cheney saw very clearly around the corner when they elected to invade and occupy Iraq?  There are huge responsibilities that go with doing the un-obvious.

In the Clinton years, “triangulation” was popular.  Clinton would float an idea or policy position and see how the polls reacted.  If favorable he continued, if not, he floated a new idea or variation.  It was pretty clear that getting reelected was priority number one for Bill.

This proposition is also complicated by estimating what “no action” will bring.  Our media tells us, “only America can do it”.  Using Iraq as an example there can be few clearer examples of letting the genie out of the bottle.  Once out, it is extremely hard to predict what will happen, and usually it can be impossible to get the genie back in.

Many argue that had the US should have gotten involve in Syria sooner, thousands of lives might have been saved.  Maybe.  But maybe not.  Those fighting the Syrian government have yet to explain clearly how things will be different should the insurgents win.  If the rest of the Middle East is relevant, we should expect hard line Islamists to use the polling box as a tool to gain control and push everyone else out.  Once with control, the Islamists (depending upon whether they are Sunni or Shiite) will move to populate the military and the government with their supporters.  In the end, the “today have nots” will become “tomorrow’s haves” and “today’s haves” will become the “have nots”.  Simple but totally unpredictable.

When one looks back at the folly of Cheney’s Iraq War, one normally thinks of the many US dead and grievously wounded and the tremendous cost.  There is another unrecognized cost.  Iraq was not broken and had “W” had the fortitude to wait, the balance of power between Iran and its natural enemy Iraq would made the Syrian situation play out differently.

With Hussein still in power (and our no fly zone still in place), the US would have been much freer to pick a side amongst the Syria insurgents.  Today all that can be seen “around the corner” is that sunnis are just waiting to kill shiites and those insurgents most likely to win will be unsavory and become our new “friends”.

Maybe David Brooks is wrong.   Maybe President Obama did look around the corner and didn’t like what he saw.


Trying To Do Better?

June 17, 2013

New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christy made the news again.  This is not unusual, although on this issue it is surprising.  Christy wants to change the Civil Service promotion rules.  Hmmm.

Christy’s spokesperson said the proposal which would allow managers to promote younger, more qualified employees without all the bother of tests and procedures was in line with Christy’s efforts to improve State Government services.  As you might expect, the State Public Service Employees Union howled with disapproval.

I can easily imagine that this proposal arises from the mismatch of younger people with computer and social media skills locked into positions which do not reward those skills financially.  Instead, the younger workers are destined to work a routine assignments “until” their time comes.  And the irony is most likely that when their time comes to occupy higher level jobs, technology will have evolved again and those junior to these new supervisors will have the necessary talents.  Hmmm.

Less obvious but just as undesirable an outcome occurs when public employees must be laid off.  Seniority rules the way and skill or ability are overlooked.  So why aren’t the best and the brightest promoted and paid accordingly?

Let’s be clear this is not a new phenomena or one unique to Governor Christy.  It goes hand in hand with political appointments and political spoils.

Selecting the best and the brightest by management evaluations works as well as the “independence and integrity” of the evaluator.  Favoritism, prejudices, and payoffs all can abound in a system of management selection.  In short, this is why the Civil Service rules evolved.

In the business world, management selection is the bedrock process for advancement.  So, why does it work in business and is so fraught with problems in public service?

Competition is the answer.

In the business world, should management selections turn out to be unwise, a competitor will offer better mouse traps and one business will fail while the other flourishes.  We should recognize that management selection models always involve favoritism, prejudices, and payoffs of some type or amount whether employed in the public or private sector.  With the prospect of business failure, the private sector has natural reasons to limit the misuse of management selection.  Public service does not.

One more warning to Governor Christy.  I could accept that his personal motivation might be just as stated, improve the effectiveness of government services.  I could also accept that Governor Christy’s civil service managers would wisely choose those for promotion.  What I have difficulty accepting is that Governor Christy’s successors will have the same goals when it would be so helpful to reward his/her political supporters.

Leading From Bankruptcy

June 14, 2013

This morning it was Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.  It could have been most any other Republican Senator or House Member for that matter,  They all use the same talking points and they all totally miss the glaring hole in their arguments.  This time, “leading from behind” was the battle cry.

Unlike former President George W Bush (and his Bismark, Dick Cheney), President Obama has been careful in avoiding new engagements.  (President Obama probably could have done a much better job getting out of Afghanistan but that’s another story.)  Yet, many Republicans attempt to diminish the President’s record with a derisive “he leads from behind” as if implying that “W’s” turn at the helm was brilliant and successful.

Of course we could write these Republican comments off as simply political rhetoric.  We could except for the “leading from behind” segways into “we should arm the good insurgents” and “there’s no leadership in cutting the budget”.  What are they thinking when they say “good insurgents”?  And where do they think the money is going to come from to keep US forces engaged around the world?

Arguably, President Obama’s reluctance to engage the US in another Middle East squabble is brilliant. He is keeping the US “powder” dry until such time as it is really needed (like if Iran were to attack Israel).  President Obama is also saying to European powers, ‘the free ride is over… if you want Middle East oil, you need to participate meaningfully”.

The “cut government spending” rant is where these Republicans get really twisted.  The statement itself is not the problem.  The US certainly has to learn how to live on far closer to a balanced budget.  The “catch” is two fold.  First, there is huge hypocrisy in championing war while demanding cuts to the social network.  Second, it is simply cruel to urge government expenditures on Medicare and Medicaid be cut in favor of an increased Defense budget while the elephant in the room (easy for everyone to see) is that health care for all Americans costs too much (twice other modern countries).

Were Republicans to change their tune and strongly recommend total health care reform emulating other countries who spend far less than the US and obtain equal or better outcomes, the Republican message of leading out front would have a ring of credibility.

The politicians may be trying to appear bold and decisive (although there is no evidence they would know how to lead from the front).  In fact what they are recommending is leading from bankruptcy.